September 22, 2017

Tolls would be required for Larson's 'big dig'

Connecticut abolished tollbooths more than 30 years ago, and every attempt to reinstate them since has been blown out of the water. But that would have to change, says U.S. Rep. John B. Larson, D-1st District, should his proposed underground highway system in Hartford become reality.

For the last eight months Larson has talked to nearly every civic group, news editorial board, local business, municipal government, state agency, and federal office, trying to drum up support for his proposed $10 billion "big dig" project.

So far, support has been hit or miss for the plan that would sink interstates 84 and 91 under the capitol city and the Connecticut River — creating tunnels east to west from Roberts Street in East Hartford to Flatbush Avenue in Hartford's west end, and north to south from the Meadows to Frog Hollow, with a cloverleaf interchange somewhere underneath Coltsville National Historical Park in Hartford.

Federal funding is highly questionable, even from a presidential administration that campaigned on rebuilding the country's failing infrastructure. Another fiscal hurdle is a combative state legislature that can't adopt its own budget on time.

Still, Larson, who is one of the lead Democrats on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, says he's confident he can wrangle 90 percent of the funds out of the federal government, leaving Connecticut to finance the remaining 10 percent.

Last month Larson introduced legislation that would allocate $1 trillion for infrastructure projects throughout the country, which he hopes will include his own pet project, without affecting the national debt. The proposed bill would raise the funds by imposing a carbon tax on fossil fuels, including coal, oil, and natural gas. The revenue would be placed in a designated fund to be used solely for infrastructure projects.

But tolls will have to be part of the Hartford project, Larson said Wednesday during a meeting with the Journal Inquirer.

"I think that would be inevitable," the East Hartford native said, adding that if nothing else, tolls would be needed to pay for ongoing maintenance of the ambitious and colossal construction. Besides, every surrounding state with the exception of Vermont uses the much safer electronic transponder tolls to their advantage, while Connecticut gives every motorist and trucker passing through the state a free ride, he said.

"We subsidize every other state's roads — it just doesn't seem fair," he added.

But the real irony is that the Connecticut River's levees and viaduct systems need to be redone anyway, he notes.

Designed in response to the floods of 1936 and 1938, the existing system of embankments is prone to "underseepage," according to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's unlikely water would crest over the elevated mounds, but much like the levee failure in the New Orleans 9th Ward during Hurricane Katrina, the Connecticut hills meant to hold back rising waters are built atop alluvial sand deposits that can allow the rushing river to percolate through the bottom and breach the embankment from underneath.

Engineers are now conducting surveys and plans to shore up the system.

That makes now the perfect time, Larson said, to consider including in the plans a system of concrete tunnels to carry traffic across the city underground, while above connecting neighborhoods long separated by elevated highways, exposing the downtown to the riverfront, and spurring development in prime real estate locations now covered by eight lanes of blacktop highway.

Larson said there were lessons learned from other similar projects, like the $15 billion dig to the north that buried Boston's central artery and was plagued with cost overruns, over 500 leaks, and a fatal ceiling cave-in that killed a passing motorist.

Badly mixed concrete was a factor, "something we now know a lot about down here," Larson said, referring to the recent rash of homeowners dealing with crumbling concrete foundations.

Estimated to cost $2.6 billion at the outset, Massachusetts still is paying the bill 10 years later on the final tab that came to $24 billion when interest on debt was factored into the equation.

Still, while most Bostonians groused and griped throughout the constant construction and delays, many now grudgingly agree that the suffering paid off.

Having learned from Boston's construction mistakes, and with an administration ready and willing to pour federal money into infrastructure and job creation, it makes sense to expand the levee study to include plans to bury the Hartford highways, Larson said.

"We want to have the bags packed and ready to go should the opportunity arise," he said.

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